Four areas of Russian-occupied Ukraine have begun holding referendums, which Kiev has condemned as illegal and believed to pave the way for Moscow to formally annex about 15 percent of Ukrainian territory.
Votes in Luhansk and Donetsk, the self-proclaimed “independent republics” controlled by Moscow-backed separatists since 2014, as well as in the southern provinces of Kherson and Zaporizhia will continue until September 27.
The voting process in the four regions would be unconventional, Russia’s TASS news agency reported.
“Given the short deadlines and lack of technical equipment, it was decided not to vote electronically and to use the traditional paper ballots,” it said.
Authorities go door-to-door collecting votes for the first four days, and polling stations don’t open for residents to vote until the last day.
The Russian-installed leaders of the four territories abruptly announced the plans on Tuesday after a lightning-fast Ukraine counter-offensive recaptured parts of northeastern Kharkov territory that Russia had taken after its invasion of the country on Feb. 24.
The results are seen as a foregone conclusion in favor of annexation, and Ukraine and its allies have already made it clear that they will not recognize the outcome.
A similar referendum, held in Crimea after the 2014 Russian invasion, found 97 percent in favor of formal annexation in a vote that took place under the close watch of Russian soldiers and was not recognized by the international community.
The votes are seen as a significant escalation of the seven-month-old war in Ukraine — which killed thousands and displaced millions — as the incorporation would allow Moscow to claim it was defending its own territory.
“If all this is declared Russian territory, they can declare that this is a direct attack on Russia so that they can fight without reservation,” Luhansk regional governor Serhiy Haidai told Ukrainian TV.
The referenda have been condemned by the United Nations and world leaders, including US President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron, as well as international bodies such as NATO, the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
The OSCE, which oversees the elections, said the results would have no legal force because they do not comply with Ukrainian law or international standards and that fighting continues in the areas where the votes are taking place.
‘All a sham’
There will be no independent observers and polling stations in Zaporizhzhya will be heavily guarded, local officials told the RIA news agency.
Some residents continued to leave ahead of the vote. Yulia, who fled Melitopol and preferred to share only her first name for fear of reprisals, traveled to Ukraine-controlled Zaporizhzhya, but left her parents behind.
She would tell Al Jazeera that they were part of an older generation nostalgic for the Soviet Union, which collapsed more than 30 years ago and also included Ukraine. Russia recognized Ukraine’s post-Soviet borders under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum.
“I kept my kids at home,” she said of life in the occupied city. “There was too much pressure on them at school. They would be punished if they spoke Ukrainian. I’m afraid I won’t be able to go home because after the referendum people will need special permits to get in and out.”
In the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk — the self-proclaimed republics that Putin recognized as independent just before the invasion — residents will be held accountable for supporting their “republic’s accession to Russia,” TASS said.
The question about the Kherson and Zaporizhzhya ballots will be reworded: “Do you support secession from Ukraine, creation of an independent state by the region and joining the Russian Federation as a subject of the Russian Federation?”
“This is all a sham. This is all a charade orchestrated by Putin,” Kurt Volker, who served as US Special Representative for Ukraine negotiations from 2017 to 2019 and is now a fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, told Al Jazeera. “I don’t think this has any impact on the situation on the ground and will not change Ukraine’s determination to recapture and recapture territories. Nor will it hurt the resolve in the West to help Ukraine defend itself against Russian aggression.”
Ukraine has said the referenda were a sign of Russia’s weakness rather than strength.
Russia controls most of Luhansk and Kherson, about 80 percent of Zaporizhzhya and only 60 percent of Donetsk.
A day after the referendums were announced, Putin ordered a mobilization of reservists to bolster Russian forces in Ukraine, and declared his willingness to use nuclear weapons to fend off attacks on Russian territory.
“Any decision the Russian leadership makes will not change anything for Ukraine,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Thursday.
“Strictly important to us are the tasks that lie ahead of us. This is liberating our country, defending our people and mobilizing world support [public opinion] to carry out those tasks.”